Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Syria forces remove more women and children from ISIS territory

Thousands trapped in last sliver of extremist group's 'caliphate'

Trucks loaded with civilians near the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on February 22, 2019. Reuters
Trucks loaded with civilians near the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on February 22, 2019. Reuters

US-backed Syrian fighters on Friday evacuated more of the estimated thousands of civilians trapped in the last patch of territory held by ISIS in Syria, eager to press on with the dragging battle to crush the militants.

Almost 30 trucks carrying men, women and children left the village of Baghouz in the second such large-scale evacuation carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces in three days.

SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said he hoped the civilian evacuations could be completed by Saturday.

Fellow SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said that once the evacuations had ended, his forces would expel the last militants from the less than half a square kilometre they still hold.

"When the civilians leave, we will see how many civilians and IS fighters remain inside and what they want to do," he said. "They will be faced with a choice: war or surrender."

The SDF evacuated 3,000 people from the ISIS pocket on Wednesday, mostly women and children, but trucks left near empty on Thursday.

Mr Bali said that screening had determined that most of those ferried out of Baghouz on Wednesday were foreigners.

"The majority are Iraqi and from countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Europeans among them," he said.

David Eubank, the leader of the Free Burma Rangers volunteer aid group, said the women and children transported out were "very hungry and dirty".

They included "many French women", as well as others from Australia, Austria, Germany and Russia, and one woman from Britain, he said.

Human Rights Watch urged the SDF and the US-led coalition supporting it to make protecting civilians a priority.

"Civilians leaving Baghouz is a relief but it should not obscure the fact that this battle appears to have been waged without sufficient consideration to their well-being," the New York-based watchdog's counterterrosim director, Nadim Houry said.

"Just because they may be families of ISIS members or sympathised with them does not take away their protected status," he said.

Beyond Baghouz, ISIS retains a presence in the vast, virtually unpopulated Syrian Desert and sleeper cells elsewhere, and continues to claim deadly attacks inside SDF-held territory.

On Thursday, they detonated a car bomb that killed 20 people, mostly oil workers, near Omar oil field, the main base for the SDF operation in Baghouz.

The battle for the village is now the only live front in Syria's complex civil war, which has killed an estimated 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

At the height of its rule, ISIS imposed its brutal ideology on a vast area spanning Syria and neighbouring Iraq, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad.

But some of those foreigners have been killed, while the SDF holds hundreds more.

Syria's Kurds have long requested that their home countries take them back, but foreign governments have been reluctant.

On Thursday, the father of an Alabama woman who joined IS in Syria sued to bring her home after the Trump administration declared she was not a US citizen.

Hoda Muthana, 24, says that she regrets joining the extremists and is willing to face prosecution in the United States.

A London teenager, meanwhile, faced being left stateless after Britain revoked her citizenship and authorities in Bangladesh, where her parents were born, said they did not want her.

Shamima Begum travelled to Syria in 2015 aged just 15, but after giving birth in a refugee camp last weekend says she wants to go home.

Updated: February 22, 2019 05:13 PM

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